From the archives

IMG_1244 (800x600)I first visited Budapest in December 2003. Shortly afterwards, I wrote this letter about my impressions. The inimitable DLW, who hoards her correspondence, dug it out of her archives for me. It was fascinating for me to read nearly ten years later, to see how much and how little has changed.

9 December 2003

Hi ya’ll,

Trust you’re all well and truly over Thanksgiving and ready to take on Christmas and the New Year.

I spent the last few days in Budapest – lovely city. We stayed on a boat on the Danube on the Pest side of the river (yes, Buda and Pest are two cities linked by a series of nine bridges across the Danube.) Our boat was moored just by Margrit Bridge, off Margrit Island. Very picturesque altogether and definitely had one up on your normal budget hotel. I had half expected to be lulled asleep by strains of the Blue Danube wafting across the river but never heard it once…

Pest is a lovely city, easy to negotiate, and hard to get lost in. Even with lots of underpasses, it’s surprisingly safe. I’d be hard pushed to wander down an underpass in London late at night but didn’t feel in the least bit threatened while wandering underneath the city. The metro and tram systems are wonderful…trains and trams every 3-4 minutes. Just as well really ’cause it was bitterly cold. It’s got some amazing buildings – Parliament in particular – and you have to wonder how it survived the wars. When you think that in 1919, Hungary was a rather big country gradually annexed off, piece by piece, until it’s now one of the smallest European countries… it sort of explains the sense of purpose that’s evident everywhere – something akin to “You ain’t getting any more, mate!”. People don’t stroll…they’re going somewhere. Life is planned; it has purpose. Queues are orderly, even in the biting cold. The pubs seem to have a secret shift order worked out – Afternoon shift making way for the evening shift making way for the night (pre-dinner) shift etc. (And yes, we did sit through most shifts one evening…)

Considering that communism was alive and kicking as recently as 1990, the locals are happier looking than their Prague counterparts. Again, in contrast, the church was packed to the rafters on Sunday – not as overtly Catholic as Poland, but definitely a healthy proportion still practicing. The House of Terror museum is excellent, depicting life in Hungary through both wars and the revolution. It’s right up there with the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. very well done. Quite disturbing to walk through a corridor made from bars of Jewish soap…

Most of the major statue relics of communism have been removed from the city to Statue Park in south Buda. We got the bus out there and it was quite depressing. Again, like Prague and the outskirts of Warsaw, the old communist block buildings are dismal. Makes you wonder how conditioned we’ve gotten to our aesthetic lives…. where functionality just isn’t enough. things have to be prettied too. It’s quite something wandering around these giant statues; brings to mind how the Lilliputians felt when Gulliver dropped in.

The highlight of it all though was meeting Dr. Sardis. A volunteer at the Jewish Museum, she survived Birkenau…hearing her speak of her time as a 14-year old in the camps was sobering. She was in the chamber, with other young women, waiting to be gassed, when the order came to ship them out to Germany to work in a munitions factory. Liberated from there in 1945, she  told us of being in a shop as seeing the same Jewish soap on sale…made from real Jewish fat. She’s quite concerned now at the so-called liberating effects of democracy where fascism is viewed as another opinion in a world where everyone is entitled to their opinion. She told us of young neo-nazi groups meeting in the villages outside Budapest; the rising popularity of fascism amongst young people; and her fear that it could all happen again. Add this to the young Polish people talking of how Jews had totally assimilated into Polish society… and you wonder… could it all happen again?

St Nicholas’s Day is December 6 and all the children put shoes out on the windowsills so that St Nicholas can put presents in them. The Christmas spirit was alive and well and it was all quite magical. The big ice ring; the roasting chestnuts; people clutching cups of mulled wine as they wandered around the open-air craft fairs – if only we’d had snow… Surprisingly, while eating out is very reasonable and local beer, wine and cigarettes quite cheap, fashion goods (how’s that for an economic term dredged from the memory) are on a par with London and Dublin. Definitely no bargains to be found. And the Market Hall with its fruit and veg and dead ducks hanging from the rafters, is quite the experience. Like the indoor market in Modena, it would make you want to live around the corner so that you would never have to set foot in a supermarket again…

While not exactly the ‘new Tuscany’, Budapest is a thriving city that reminds me a lot of where Ireland was before she joined the EC. All predictions are that things will take off there in the next few years and the Hungarians will experience their version of the Celtic Tiger. Half of Ireland is buying apartments in the city… watch this space…

So, on the home front, am chasing a job in Dublin…fingers crossed and good vibes to be sent my way please… I really want this one. Should know more in the next couple of weeks. Lots of serendipity at work…contract here up Jan 4th, lease up Jan 4th, running into GMcD (whose company is hiring); being put in touch with the chap who’s hiring to discover I dated him briefly years ago and knit him a jumper! and the constant appearance of a saying I’d only heard once before, when I was leaving Alaska…’a ship is safe in a harbour, but that’s not what ships are built for.

Hopefully, this will be the turning point…

Going home December 18th… will be in touch in the New Year. Have a wonderful holiday…and have one for me!

Beannachtai na Nollaig dhaoibh



A man worth knowing

Be free to eat, drink, make love and sleep! (from Ars Poetica, 1937, trans. by Michael Beevor)

When I was in the habit of making a regular Tuesday morning visit to Buda, I’d stop by the statue of József Attila on the way back to Pest and spend a quarter of an hour or so catching up with him, getting his advice on whatever catastrophe had manifested itself in my life that particular week. I was new to Budapest and was missing the solid, uncomplicated strength that can only be found in a solitary male mind. My friends were few and my life verged on troublesome. Back then, even my issues had issues. József Attila was just the company I needed. He would listen to me for as long as I cared to speak, never interrupting with suggestions of what I should do or ways in which he could fix my problems. He understood me enough to know that I simply needed to vent – and by venting aloud, I would often arrive at my own solutions or else write off the problem as one not even worth bothering about. I just needed someone to listen. Those mornings spent sitting by his side on the banks of the Danube in the shadow of Parliament were nothing short of glorious.

Be what you really want – a man (from No forgiveness, 1937, trans. by Anton N. Nyerges)

József Attila, arguably Hungary’s greatest poet of the twentieth century, spent his life in poverty, suffering from depression, first attempting suicide at the age of 9 and finally achieving it at 32. And yet he had a faith in life’s beauty and an insight into its intricacies that is denied to many. Perhaps it is this melancholy that so attracts me. While I, too, have suffered from depression, the tablet treatment available to me is far more palatable that the spells in psychiatric wards that he endured. Unlucky in love, his affair with a middle-class girl in the 1920s led to a nervous breakdown. He, more than any other man I know, could understand what it is to be caught up in the throes of unrequited love; to weigh societal norms and social acceptance against a baser need to love and be loved. Sitting as he does, knees splayed, head bowed, hat in hand, he is, for me, the epitome of a silent strength that makes me wish I had been born a little earlier so that I could have met him, in the flesh.

When I heard that the government was planning to restore Kossuth Lajos tér to its pre-1944 glory and transplant him to some other part of Budapest, I was upset – perhaps a little irrationally so. I don’t profess to understand the ideology behind the proposed move. I doubt I will ever really grasp this Hungarian hankering for the past. And I am acutely aware of how little I know of the real essence of the country’s history.  I am simply reacting to the thoughts of a dear friend being forcibly evicted from his home (somewhat ironic really, considering the plight of so many still trying to deal with foreign currency mortgages).

I love you as the living love life until they die. (from ODE, 1933, trans. by John Bátki)

A couple of years ago, I ran into a woman at the nagyvasarcsarnok. We were both queuing for bread. I let her go ahead of me as I was busy translating my numbers and readying myself to deliver my ask in Hungarian. We got to talking and she told me that her husband was looking for someone to work with him on his autobiography. She told me he was a famous sculptor. Perhaps I knew him. Marton László. The gods were indeed smiling on me that day as I would soon get to shake the very hands that had immortalised József Attila.  Marton László’s statue By the Danube, which was erected in 1980, is the very one I spent my Tuesday mornings in conversation with. Sadly this great man died last year. We spent a few afternoons chatting over palinka, him in Hungarian, me in English, with his wife translating as needed. Once he made me chicken soup, to get me over a rather nasty cold. I’ve wondered lately whether he and József Attila  are discussing the move in heaven.

There is no place among the living creatures for me. (from It deeply hurts, 1936, trans. by Thomas Kabdebo)

This weekend, on the 3rd of December, 74 years ago, József Attila committed suicide in Balatonszárszó by throwing himself under a freight train. So many years later, his fate once again lies open for discussion. Will he be allowed to stay where he is, on the banks of the Danube, or will be be moved elsewhere to make room for a past recreated?

First published in the Budapest Times 2 December 2011